A year ago, Stephanie Besil was 31 weeks pregnant with twins as Hurricane Irma began to zero in on the Florida Keys.
“The pregnancy alone was stressful,” said Besil, 31, of Key Largo, who evacuated for Irma and rode out the Category 4 storm at Baptist Hospital in Miami-Dade with her husband Adrian Besil and their daughter Iris, 2. “I’d never gone through anything like this.”
The family brought in an air mattress and slept at Baptist along with others who had left their homes for safer quarters.
“As soon as we got to the hospital, I knew we’d be safe,” she said. On Sept. 23, she gave birth to Julian and Joaquin, who made an appearance Monday at Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon to mark the one-year anniversary of Irma.
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Baptist Health South Florida owns Fishermen’s, which was severely damaged by Irma.
The two boys, who were born seven weeks prematurely, made it through the speeches by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, and hospital officials in the summer heat.
“They’ve come a long way,” their mother said afterward.
So has Baptist Health, which owns two of the three hospitals in the Keys: Mariners in Tavernier and Fishermen’s.
Baptist bought Fishermen’s in July 2017 with plans for renovations. Two months later, Irma hit.
Now, Baptist is planning on a $40 million rebuild to replace the wrecked building at 3301 Overseas Hwy., or mile marker 48.7.
A hospital made out of modular buildings opened in Marathon on July 1. Before that, Fishermen’s operated as a “MASH unit,” or field hospital constructed from tents and shipping containers.
“The containers looked like construction vehicles,” said Dr. Thomas Morrison, medical director of the emergency departments at Mariners and Fishermen’s.
But fire rescue knew where they were, even if locals didn’t.
“I knew we had to open,” Morrison said. “The closest hospital is two hours away. Without us here, we’d have too many people dying. I know that sounds dramatic. It’s true.”
As soon as Fishermen’s gets its cafeteria open, it can take in patients in its five private rooms. By the end of the year, Morrison said, the hospital plans to administer chemotherapy.
Baptist has employees still rebuilding their homes.
Kim Gregory, a Baptist development manager, had 22 inches of standing water in her home in Marathon after Irma.
“It’s done after eight months,” she said Monday. “I had to gut it.”
In the days after Irma made landfall on Sept. 10, 2017, Baptist put Gregory and other employees up at a Marathon hotel so they could keep working.
After four weeks, Gregory’s home had electricity and running water. She moved in, like many others in the Keys, and lived inside a construction zone until it was finished.
Within 10 days of Irma, Fishermen’s opened as a field hospital.
“Some were living in tents on Big Pine Key but they still came to work,” Gregory recalled.
Fishermen’s supporters persuaded Monroe County to add a hospital property tax to the region that will help pay for indigent care as Baptist raises the millions needed to rebuild.
“Since February, we’ve raised $7.5 million,” Gregory said, adding that help has come in from across the country. “It hasn’t just been local; it’s been national.”
Gregory said lessons learned one year after Irma include how the community can rise up after taking a Category 4 hit.
“Everybody came back and got a little stronger,” she said.